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German Defense Minister Launches Probe Into Far-Right Extremism In The Military

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're learning about a bizarre terrorist plot in Germany. Prosecutors say an army officer registered as an asylum seeker, hoping his planned attacks would be blamed on refugees. And media reports say the man actually had neo-Nazi sympathies and was linked to a secret extreme right group within the German armed forces. Germany's defense minister is vowing to investigate fully. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Berlin.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The far-reaching investigation comes after the recent arrest of a German army lieutenant who is accused of posing as a Syrian refugee and planning terror attacks. It's one of 280 allegations of far-right extremism authorities are investigating in the military here. It's also one of several recent scandals, including hazing and sexual abuse, that have pitted German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen against her generals. She is blaming weak oversight for allowing extremism to fester within the ranks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: In an interview with public broadcaster ARD, von der Leyen said the investigation will delve deep and be painful, but many here say von der Leyen is being too heavy-handed in her criticism of military leaders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN SCHULZ: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Martin Schulz, who is Chancellor Angela Merkel's main challenger in upcoming elections, told public broadcaster WDR that von der Leyen should stop assigning blame. Political responsibility for what happened lies with the defense minister, he says. Von der Leyen has Merkel's support and tried showing she is taking the matter seriously. She cancelled her official trip to Washington and New York, and with reporters in tow, went to the barracks in eastern France where the suspect was stationed with a Franco-German combat brigade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VON DER LEYEN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Speaking to the ARD interviewer, she said the suspect wrote his master's thesis three years ago while he was at the German military academy, and that it was flagged for its far-right and racist content. And yet, his superiors ignored it, von der Leyen said.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

VON DER LEYEN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: At a news conference at the French barracks, von der Leyen said most of Germany's quarter million soldiers deserve support and respect. It makes it all the more bitter, she said, that a small number of soldiers are ruining the German military's reputation. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF HINT'S "SHOUT OF BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.